Martin Gayford

The Good News of Isenheim

Martin Gayford on the Renaissance artist whose altarpiece celebrates the Incarnation at Yuletide

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In the Christkindlesmarkt — the Christmas market — in Nuremberg at about this time of year you will see an astonishingly large array of Christmas decorations. The market stalls are full of them — carved ones, tinselly ones, glittery ones, some woven out of straw — those stalls, that is, which are not selling sausages, spiced biscuits and specially rich varieties of seasonal cake. English Christmas, as everyone knows, was imported by Prince Albert. When you visit, say, Nuremberg or Bamberg at this time of year, you feel you’ve traced it to its source.

It’s a festival with roots deep in the art of the North. The spirit of Christmas, even the spirit of the Christmas decoration, seems to fill much of the art and architecture of central Europe. The mediaeval churches of the area are exuberant in the organic wildness of their carving and their structures. The Wladyslaw Oratory of Prague Cathedral has architectural ribs transformed into gnarled forest boughs; Freiburg Cathe-dral in Saxony has a pulpit in the shape of a gigantic tulip; from the vaults at Ingolstadt a sort of tiara of stone hangs suspended in space.

There is a straight line of development from this late mediaeval architectural fantasia to the equally — and I think marvellously — over-the-top baroque and rococo churches of 18th-century Bavaria (perhaps the most ebulliently festive buildings ever constructed). These are best seen in the snow, with the whiteness outside echoing the iced-cake interior within. And the same spirit lingers on in the Christmas markets one finds in every German city today.

It also permeates the celebration of the Incarnation and Birth of Christ at the heart of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by an artist conventionally known as Mattias Gr